Facilitating Literacy Using Experience Books

Victoria Brown

It is of no surprise that reading abilities are delayed in children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH), as reading is fundamentally a language-based skill. Children who are DHH possess fewer opportunities for incidental language learning garnered from interacting with a wide variety of communication partners, due to their hearing challenges. Consequently, their intuitive formulation of the language rules fundamental to written English is severely impaired. Additionally, as many children are not identified as DHH at birth, delays in implementing an intervention plan negatively affect their spoken and written language development.

To make up for these challenges, it is vital for parents and teachers to enhance language-learning contexts for young children who are DHH. Yet, data show that the literacy experiences of young children who are classified DHH are not optimal, given that parents of DHH children read to them less than parents of typically developing children, claiming in studies that it is not appropriate to read when a child does not understand what the parent is saying to them. Findings have also indicated that parents of children who are DHH control book reading interactions more, asking more direct questions compared to parents of children who are developing typically. These findings are significant, as research has suggested that children with language impairments demonstrate reduced conversational interactions in response to more directive parenting styles.

Additionally, there are other challenges with regard to the early literacy development of young children who are DHH. If children use American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language of communication, ultimately ASL users learn to “code switch” to adapt ASL word order or syntax to the word order of written English (which we learned was vastly different!). This code-switching process has repercussions for literacy learning because children who use manual communication must learn to read text reflecting their second language (Standard English) in contrast to reading written text in ASL word order. This is not to say that ASL should not be used in the name of promoting literacy; rather it is merely stated here that it often complicates the acquisition of literacy skills due to the antithetical structures of the two languages.
The remainder of this post discusses strategies to help children who are DHH overcome challenges to their literacy development using materials such as the experience book, an approach associated with the language experience approach (LEA; Stauffer, 1970). Also, I will outline advantages, considerations, and modifications of the LEA for young children who are DHH.
The experience book is generally associated with the LEA, in which a student’s daily experiences are recorded with pictures and narrated with varying levels of text. The LEA was a popular instructional practice in the 1990s in DHH classrooms. In this method of instruction, teacher-made or parent-made books are generated from ideas or events in a child’s life and illustrated with pictures, text, and objects or mementos.

Several steps have been described for experience book development:
1. Participation in a stimulus event. In the classic interpretation of the LEA, the stimulus event can be an interaction around an object, field trip, science experiment, art project, and so forth. The stories are typically written verbatim in response to the child’s dictation, or (in a classroom context) in response to group dictation. Initially the adult writes a short descriptive text that accompanies the pictures or illustrations. Ultimately, the child writes the narrative description.
2. The child reads the story. Typically the stories are group dictated; during the re-reading, the teacher points to the words as the group reads the story in unison.
3. Extension activities are then completed with the experience story. Children are encouraged to copy and illustrate the group-dictated story. Words from the experience stories are then placed in individual child word banks.

There exists descriptive and empirical support for LEA as an instructional strategy. Descriptive studies have suggested that LEA can be used to promote reading development in at-risk learners who are both hearing and DHH, and LEA has been reported to positively affect children’s motivation to read. The authors of this study also have observed advantages to using experience books in early language and literacy interventions with young children who are DHH, as the books allow for a direct connection between the child’s life and literacy. Experience books, because they reflect the child’s interests, are likely to encourage repeated readings between an adult and the DHH child. Experience books are highly motivating and help children transition from emergent to conventional reading levels while realizing the functional benefits of print and writing. Finally, experience books are extremely adaptable, and can include exposure to other more abstract concepts, including mathematical and scientific concepts.
However, educators have noted some negative aspects to using experience books. For example, it has been suggested that experience books often do not contain a true narrative story style (a plot with a beginning, middle, and end), and child-dictated stories often lack continuity, instead reflecting a list of sentences. A second concern is that children’s sentences may represent a poor model of written English, serving to reduce their experience with more sophisticated literate language models. (The term literate language is used to describe the de-contextualized language used in written text, and high-level spoken language evidenced by such linguistic forms as specificity of referents (e.g., use of pronouns tied to pre-established nouns), conscious use of cohesive devices to tie together connected thoughts (e.g., coordinate and subordinate conjunctions), and use of words such as know, thought, and said).
A final limitation regarding LEA is that this approach, if used without any modification, does not include an explicit, targeted focus regarding important reading variables. Implicit learning is associated with self-generated linguistic rule formulation and hypothesis-testing in response to feedback. Explicit learning refers to the conscious structured and sequenced presentation and exploration of language and literacy targets.
Overall, there is strong evidence that reading outcomes for readers at risk are most closely linked to proficiency in three areas of language and literacy, specifically the domains of phonological awareness (children’s awareness that words can be broken down in smaller parts), print knowledge, and oral language development. Early literacy intervention studies with children suggest that repeated, explicit, adult-directed, and carefully targeted instruction methodologies are associated with more positive child learning outcomes as compared to implicit, contextualized approaches. Explicit approaches have sometimes been typified as being “bottom-up” compared to whole-language approaches that have been portrayed as being “top-down.” This dichotomy is helpful in gauging the potential effectiveness of LEA. As a top-down approach, it should be used in combination with explicit approaches in order to optimize reading development in students who are DHH.

Lori A Pakulski, Joan N Kaderavek. “Facilitating Literacy Using Experience Books: A Case Study of Two Children With Hearing Loss.” Communication Disorders Quarterly. Austin: Summer 2004. Vol. 25, Iss. 4; pg. 179.